Vanderbilt moves on from James Franklin

Posted: August 30, 2014

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Under James Franklin, students' wearing black to Vanderbilt football games became a thing. The coach basically demanded it. Franklin goaded freshman orientation leaders to switch their T-shirts on move-in day to black and gold. Senior Tim Lee remembers rummaging around before a game to find his cleanest black shirt - "It [also] had really tiny blue stripes."

After the game, against Kentucky, Lee and his friends happened to run into Franklin coming out of the stadium.

"You're a huge fan, why are you wearing a blue shirt?" Lee remembers the head coach saying to him. "Actually, he said: 'Why the - are you wearing a blue shirt?' "

"Coach, this is the most black shirt I have, with tiny, tiny blue stripes," Lee remembers saying as they stood on the sidewalk.

"I got into it more because he was so into it," the student said. So when Franklin blew out of town for Penn State after just three years here, Lee and other students said they felt almost betrayed. Lee used the word hypocrite.

"He had complete buy-in from the students," said Lee, a biomedical engineering major who was manning a sign-up booth for a campus ministry outside Vanderbilt's main dining hall.

A couple of blocks away in the athletic department, Vanderbilt's vice chancellor for university affairs and athletics, David Williams, said: "You have to understand the business, that when somebody says, 'I'm going to be there forever,' that means five years."

Williams had hired Franklin, watched him take Vanderbilt to unseen heights - bowl games all three years he was here - and then fielded calls from places interested in him. After Vanderbilt finished its second straight 9-4 season with a win over Houston in the BBVA Compass Bowl in Birmingham, Ala., "we were walking to the car. I got two calls. I had calls from Penn State and the Washington Redskins by the time I got to my car."

Within days, Franklin, 42, who grew up in Langhorne, Bucks County, was gone, and Williams was zeroing in on Stanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason, who took the job. His first game will be Thursday night against Temple.

"I think this is the job that Derek desperately wanted and wants," Williams said. "James needed the job. He needed to get into that level. But as I got to know him, we didn't talk about it directly, but it became very clear to me, where this guy really wants to be is at a state school that is the school of the state."

Franklin as pitchman is real, Williams said, and was needed at a school where students sometimes showed up at halftime or left at halftime, "or showed up and left at halftime."

It was well known that Franklin also would push hard internally for program upgrades. ("It wasn't like he came up with something ridiculous; it was maybe something we hadn't had at Vanderbilt.") Williams compared Franklin's approach to that of a child asking for a new bike and getting no for an answer.

"One [response] is to throw a temper tantrum," Williams said. "The other is to say, 'OK, I understand, but can we talk about that maybe next month?' Or something like that. He never threw the temper tantrum."

Franklin convinced his boss of the need for an indoor practice facility. It exists now, although unlike at, say, Alabama, other Vanderbilt teams and nonathletes also use it. One Franklin request that wasn't met, Williams said, was to get priority class scheduling for football players. Even if the competition had it, that could be counterproductive at Vanderbilt, Williams told Franklin. According to Williams, Franklin's agent even got involved in those discussions, a pretty good indicator of how serious it was for Franklin.

Once during his time at Vandy, Franklin did famously stick his foot in his mouth. In a 2012 Nashville radio interview, Franklin said: "I will not hire an assistant coach until I've seen his wife. If she looks the part, and she's a [top] recruit, then you got a chance to get hired. That's part of the deal."

Williams said his own wife was furious, and women in the athletic department told him they were going to Franklin's office to speak with him. (He was out of town.) The coach was talking about needing confident assistants, but his boss remembers telling him: "James, who the hell did you not offend? The guy who didn't get the job, now he thinks: 'My wife doesn't look that good.' The guy that got the job is like, 'Are you looking at [my] wife?' And if a guy doesn't have a wife . . ."

"He was very confident, very sure of himself. But there was a side of James - I think he sort of also understood that there's still some learning to be done," Williams said, adding that there was an introspective side. "You've got to gain his confidence for him to be ready to listen to you and seek you out."

One incident in Franklin's time produced much more serious storm clouds that have not subsided. Four Vanderbilt football players were charged in August 2013 with raping and sexually battering a 21-year-old female Vanderbilt student in a dormitory. A fifth pleaded guilty to trying to cover up the incident. All five were dismissed from the football program. A trial is scheduled for November.

"I think it's best that I not talk about that because it's still ongoing," Williams said. "I will say this: James did everything we asked him to do. In responding, he was right on top of it. I don't want to get into details of it. I don't know what else he could have done."

Williams said Franklin would often talk to him about recruits, seeking input about whether they were right for the school.

As Franklin prepares to open his Penn State tenure Saturday against Central Florida in Ireland, the Franklin era at Vanderbilt eventually will be looked at as either the building block for a strong tradition or a blip. The only reference the school paper, the Hustler, made to Franklin this week was moving on from "Poach Franklin," a reference to "all the recruits and assistants . . . Franklin took with him to Penn State."

"James, he was a cult figure to a degree here because we had been so mediocre before," Williams said.

But Franklin's old boss had come to Vanderbilt from Ohio State. He knows the difference.

"I tell people, what we've done here, at Ohio State gets you fired," Williams said. "He's now in that league."


mjensen@phillynews.com

@jensenoffcampus

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